Pettitte Heeds Call to Arms

The man who bested John Smoltz in a 1-0 duel in the fifth game of the 1996 World Series and holds more post-season wins than any pitcher in history (18) may face the greatest test of his career when he faces the last-place Baltimore Orioles Sunday at Camden Yards.

Because when Andy Pettitte returns to the mound Sunday after a two-month stint on the disabled list, he will be entrusted not just with a key regular season start in a tight division race, but with the task of providing stability to a pitching staff which has been reduced to shambles.

Pettitte’s departure from the rotation on July 17th with a groin strain accelerated the dismantling of what appeared, at season’s start, to be one of the league’s best staffs. Since the tall lefthander’s absence, the list of dependable Yankee starters has begun and ended with C.C. Sabbathia.

Each for his own reasons, neither AJ Burnett, Phil Hughes, nor Javier Vasquez, the nominal third, fourth, and fifth starters, can be trusted in tight situations, let alone the playoffs.

We’ve previously discussed Burnett’s problems. Like the girl with the curl, he’s either very good or very bad. And the good outings are fewer and further between. He simply cannot pitch out of trouble, which he often gets into. Phil Hughes, who started the season ablaze as the Yankees 4th starter (11-2 on July 9th) has gone 5 and 6 since. His 2-run surrender to part-timer Dan Johnson in the 7th inning Wednesday night against Tampa cost the Yankees a 1.5 game lead in the AL East.

Vasquez is one of only three active right-handed pitchers to strikeout 200 batters in a season three times (Roy Halladay, Kerry Wood); but he has lost several miles off his fast ball, and is now primarily an off-speed pitcher. If his placement isn’t perfect, he gets rocked. Vasquez was so awful he got bounced from the rotation; but substitute fifth starters Sergio Mitre, Dustin Moseley, and Ivan Nova have offered barely a quantum of solace.

Yankee batsmen and a stellar bullpen enabled the Bombers to compile a best-in-the-league record of 86-50 through September 4th; but in losing eight of their last eleven, their shortcomings have been dramatized.

As the New York Times pointed out yesterday, Yankee output this season has come from non-traditional sources. With Jeter and A-Rod in the midst of down seasons, and Mark Teixeira hitting under .260, the greatest contributors to victory this year, according to one statistical measure, have been Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Bret Gardner.

The Yanks’ recent slump has coincided with the absence of Swisher and Gardner from the line-up and a lack of clutch hitting from Jeter, Rodriguez, and Teixeira. In their just-concluded series with Tampa, they fielded an extremely un-Yankee like bottom four of Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, Colin Curtis and Franco Cervelli. All three of the Yankees’ victories in the 11-game stretch have come in their last at bat.

Unless Pettitte returns in top form, the Yankees will almost certainly surrender the Division title to Tampa Bay, which has a much easier schedule, and will harbor little chance to succeed in the playoffs, where starting pitching is pre-eminent. As well, Minnesota is likely to overtake both Tampa Bay and the Yankees for best record, which would entitle them to the extra home game in the ALDS and ALCS.

With Sabbathia and a healthy Pettitte available to pitch four games of a potential five-game ALDS, the Yanks would have a decent chance to get by their first-round play-off opponent; and between Burnett and Hughes, they might be able to cobble together a third starter to pitch games three and six of the ALCS and World Series.

If anyone can handle the extra responsibility, it is Pettitte, who during the last fifteen years has pitched in more pressure situations than anyone. In fact, he’s pitched a full season of games in the post-season alone, logging an 18-9 record over 28 series, including eight World Series, and 249 innings.

Pettitte peers in

And he’s one of only a few athletes to overcome an admission of steroid use. Both Pettitte and Clemens were named in the Mitchell Report. Pettitte confessed to using Human Growth Hormone on two occasions to speed his recovery from an injury. Clemens insisted that he never touched the stuff. Clemens is under indictment for perjury. Pettitte is starring in a Dove Men’s Care commercial.

Pettitte’s testimony played a vital role in Clemens’ perjury investigation and his eventual indictment. When Andy told House investigators of a private conversation in which Clemens admitted taking steroids, it provided the Feds with the corroboration they needed to support trainer Greg McNamara’s assertions that he had injected Clemens with the forbidden juice on multiple occasions over several years. Pettitte could easily have protected his buddy without fear of discovery, but his strong Christian ethic compelled him to tell the truth.

At 38, Pettitte will contemplate retirement after this season, as he has done for the past few. But if he has one more run in him, he can cement his Hall of Fame credentials. He’s already won more games as a Yankee than anyone other than Whitey Ford, and his 240 total wins (37 with Houston from 2004-2006) exceed Ford’s total of 236. When Pettitte went down with injury, he sported an 11-2 record and an era under 3.00.

Because he throws strikes and is not overpowering, Pettitte surrenders a lot of hits (261 in the post-season); but he has the best pick-off move in the game and fields his position like a cat burglar. In contrast, Burnett does not hold runners well, and has allowed 34 of 39 base stealers to successfully advance.

The surest sign of playoff baseball over the last 15 years has been the picture of Pettitte peering out from over his glove at the batter, followed by his deliberate stretch, the nod to the runner dancing off first, and the big follow-through to the plate. If the veteran lefty regains his stride Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards, then notwithstanding the Yanks’ recent difficulties, it may be deja vu all over again for Yankee opponents this fall.


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One Response to “Pettitte Heeds Call to Arms”

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